Samantha McDonald / Senior Staff Writer
Brad Leali was just a boy when he got a glimpse of what would eventually become his career.
Every so often, he said he would hear music coming from the basement of his home, and upon heading downstairs, he would find his father playing the saxophone. Although his father was never a professional musician, he kept the instrument long after he stopped playing before Leali was born.
One day, after several years of sitting in the audience, Leali said he told his father of his desire to play the saxophone. That very day, his father bought a reed and signed his son up for a band.
“The rest is history,” said Leali, a now-renowned saxophonist, professor at the College of Music and director of the Three O’Clock Lab Band.
Despite his achievements and an upcoming performance tour, Leali said his work can be traced to humble beginnings. He knew in high school that he wanted to pursue a future through saxophone, but was unsure what to do about college.
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Leali said he considered going to a university in Dallas because his mother was born there. But it was only when a close friend who also played the saxophone applied to UNT, then called North Texas State University, that he was persuaded to move to Texas.
“What happened was he ended up not going, so I had all my paperwork done and there was no way my mother was going to say, ‘No, you’re not going to go,’” Leali said. “She said, ‘You’re going to North Texas,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’”
Leali completed his Bachelor of Arts in music education in 1989. The day after he graduated, he received a message from a man called Ben Wolfe on his answering machine, asking if Leali would like to audition for the Harry Connick Jr. Orchestra, named after one of the best-selling male jazz artists in the United States.
Wolfe, who was then the musical director for the band, asked Leali to play the saxophone over the phone, so he did.
One year later, Leali became the new musical director for the Harry Connick Jr. Orchestra.
“That was my first gig,” Leali said. “That encounter changed my life.”
Since then, Leali has performed for President Obama at his 2008 innauguration, played alongside jazz legend Nancy Wilson and received a Grammy nomination for his solo work, among other accomplishments.
Leading a double life
After earning his master’s degree in jazz performance at Rutgers University in 2005, Leali worked as a music professor at Texas Tech then moved to UNT in 2008 to adopt the same position in the jazz studies department.
Fellow professor and saxophonist Eric Nestler described Leali as a warm and compassionate man who shows understanding, yet is firm in his beliefs.
“[He] is a dedicated teacher, interested in helping students understand the art of performing music in the jazz style as well as finding their own voice while performing music with the saxophone,” Nestler said. “My impression is that his students adore him. They certainly respect him.”
Jazz performance senior Kyle Bellaire, one of Leali’s students, plays lead alto for the Three O’Clock Lab Band.
Bellaire has studied three semesters with Leali in his private studio, where doctoral and master students get first priority. He said he also took Leali’s saxophone fundamentals course in which students are required to perform an assignment every week in front of the freshman class.
Bellaire said this experience and the critiques provided by Leali helped him acclimate to the expectations for saxophone players in the jazz program.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable in terms of playing in many different styles, but also he is an excellent lead alto player and he is a musician who really has his own voice,” Bellaire said. “All musicians want to develop their own voice, and it’s extremely helpful to study with and be mentored by another musician who has achieved that.”
Bellaire, who has been playing the saxophone for about 10 years, said he decided in high school that he wanted to play music as a profession. Although his goal is to play lead alto in the U.S. Navy Band Commodores, he plans to continue his studies under Leali’s guidance after graduating in August.
“I have certainly enjoyed my lessons with him, and I actually am going to stick around for my master’s degree,” Bellaire said. “Specifically because I feel like I haven’t gotten everything out of him that I really want to yet.”
As Leali’s teaching assistant for the past two and a half years, Aaron Hedenstrom said he understands why students are drawn to Leali’s instruction.
“He is very encouraging, but at the same time has very high standards for his students,” Hedenstrom said. “He likes to give good advice and he gives great feedback, but he also knows what it takes to be a professional musician, so he definitely establishes a high expectation for his students.”
Hedenstrom, a doctoral student in jazz studies, said Leali has opened his eyes – or ears – to new musicians, like Stanley Turrentine and Eddie Harris; older music from the 1950s, including “Just in Time” and “Milestones”; and different saxophone techniques.
“Professor Leali has helped me in my career a lot through giving me advice and helping me navigate important decisions that you have to make when you’re deciding the path going forward,” Hedenstrom said. “In a music career, there are a lot of different directions you can take, and he’s been really good to me all the time. He’s had so much experience in the real world.”
Since becoming a saxophone professor at UNT, Leali said he has made lasting relationships with a wide variety of great musicians in the College of Music faculty who led him to get serious about the profession.
Leali said he also takes pride in his students’ accomplishments, a number of whom have received widespread recognition across the state and the country.
“I always try to tell my students to find their own voices, but in finding their own voices, they have to be willing to work hard,” Leali said. “I try to tell my students that if they really want to do this, they have to put in the work because there is a big payoff.”
When Leali thinks about his future, he said he would like to go wherever the music takes him.
“All I want to do is keep going,” he said. “I’m still practicing every day. I’m still trying to get through different projects, I’m still trying to be a better teacher and I’m trying to be a better player. I’m just trying to be a better person.”
Featured image: Saxophone professor Brad Leali. Photo courtesy of Mr. Leali